Twelve Years a Slave: Purgatory and Paradise

Twelve Years a Slave: Purgatory and Paradise

 by

Howard Adelman

Steve McQueen stated that issues of race are not a priority in his work; the horror of hell and the damnation beyond is. In Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon first travelled from the north through the various stages of hell as he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He now enters purgatory when he is resold to Edwin Epps on a plantation from, but no longer even in, hell. Satan`s fall created hell. But the earth displaced by that fall became purgatory that existed on the other side of the mountain far away from northern eyes. But the main difference between hell and the purgatorial life of field slaves on a cotton plantation is not so much the prevalence of cruel actions as the malicious motives for those actions.

As Steve McQueen said of his film, Shame, “The film is more about what people don’t say rather than what they say. It’s about undercurrents, internalization. People generally say things out loud that are designed to make other people feel comfortable. So it becomes like poker — you have to look for the tell. And you’re relying on the audience to pick up on things that are recognizable but at the same time unfamiliar. “McQueen`s themes have been about the imprisonment and abuse of the body that is being imprisoned, whether in the story of Bobby Sands` hunger strike in Hunger, or the tale of the sexaholic in Shame. To quote McQueen, “man`s body is both his escape hatch and his prison.” The individual body and the body politic as an American gulag become the new setting to explore what happens to a man`s soul, to his spirit or ruah.

I read one review that described Solomon Northup in terms of his humanity, which, in spite of his searing experiences, grows larger as the film progresses. Another film reviewer wrote that Solomon`s saving grace was the dignity with which he endured and observed his own and a nation’s shame. Nonsense! Solomon Northup’s humanity and his dignity are initially sacrificed on a very slight commercial whim and then both are lost gradually and inexorably stage by stage in every scene of the film. This is the film’s real horror that goes much beyond sadistic physical abuse. Slavery demeans not only the white slaveholders but those enslaved as well. Only Solomon’s will to survive and see his wife and children once again sustain him – not his humanity, not his dignity. In fact, at each stage of the drop, another slice of his humanity and his dignity have to be sacrificed in order for him to survive.

Although Solomon Northup continues to balance between fragility and a determination to survive (see McQueen’s 1996 short, Just Above My Head), Solomon had to first surrender his material well-being, his pride in his skills and education, his sense of entitlement because of his northern origins and birth as a free man. Much more is asked of Solomon now that his freedom, pride, dignity and sense of self have seemingly been totally stripped from him. His spirit now has to be crushed. In 1831 in the aftermath of the Nat Turner slave rebellion, southern states passed legislation forbidding the teaching of literacy to Blacks and even forbad them from holding religious services without the presence of a white minister. Ford, the mild-mannered but morally corrupted slave owner in hell, preached to his Black slaves. Epps does so as well. But Epps offers a very different lesson.

Edwin Epps preaches to his slaves from the New Testament, Luke 12:47 in particular: “And the slave who knew his master`s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes.” It helps to know the context. The previous verse, 46, reads: “The master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers.” The verse that follows is also helpful: “The one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” Solomon is flogged 16 times with a plank early in the movie then he receives another flogging with a rope. But the greatest horror is yet to come when he is not flogged but is forced to flog another slave.

Thus, while Epps is using the Gospel of Luke to justify whipping his slaves – 40, 50, perhaps 150 lashes – the original text stresses how the naïve and innocent, who did not even recognize slavery, is led to commit deeds worthy of a flogging – telling outright lies. The passage refers to the ultimate humiliation, taking up the whip against a fellow slave while receiving relatively few lashes. To repeat, from one who has been given much, much will be required.

However, first purgatory must be established as an integral part of ordinary life. McQueen recreates the work rhythms and routines of a cotton plantation as described so precisely in Northup`s autobiography. Instead of the field slaves located some distance from the manor house, as in Tara, in this movie the intimacy between slaves and master is well established. Slaves and slave owners live cheek by jowl next to one another. However, the slaves remain committed to freedom and sing their songs of desire even as they go about the work pretending not to notice the degradations being meted out against them in beatings, whippings and even lynchings. Solomon eventually joins in to sing “Roll, Jordan, Roll” (the balance to “Run, Nigger, Run” sung by the cruel foreman in Hell) and symbolically accepts that he is a slave in equal status to the others. This is the very title of Eugene Genovese`s great book on slavery with the subtitle of The World the Slaves Made.

Roll Jordan 
Roll, roll Jordan, roll 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
To hear Jordan roll (roll, roll, roll) 

Now brother, you ought to been there 
Yes, my Lord 
A sitting in the kingdom 
To hear Jordan 

Well, roll Jordan, roll (roll Jordan) 
Roll Jordan, roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
Roll Jordan, roll 

Well my mother, you ought to been there 
Mother, you ought to been there 
My mother, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Oh you can see it roll, better roll, better roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
Roll Jordan, roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
Roll Jordan, roll 

Well my mother, you ought to been there (oh yes) 
Mother, you ought to been there 
My mother, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Oh you can see it roll, better roll, better roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
Rollover Jordan, roll (roll Jordan, roll Jordan) 
I want to go to heaven when I die 
Roll Jordan, roll 

Well my sister, you ought to been there now 
Sister, you ought to been there 
My sister, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Well my brother, you ought to been there now 
Brother, you ought to been there 
My brother, you ought to been there 
Roll, Jordan roll 

Further, the character of the Great Satan, Epps, must be established. He is a fire eater and a man filled with lust and wrath, cunning and conniving, and insistent on doing what he wants with what he considers his property. He is also a drunken sot who slips on pig slop and tumbles over his own fences. Like Dante`s Satan, the once most splendid of God`s creatures has fallen so far that he has become a man without an ounce of grace, slobbering and tongue-tied. He is a bully, a rapist but also a very conflicted sadistic soul.

Then there are the seven deadly sins of Purgatory characterized by excessive passion (lust, gluttony and greed), by deficient passion (sloth) and by deformed passion (wrath of a very different order than the simple resentment of Tibault, a wrath that is infused with malice as are envy and pride. Lust is not just the indulgence in sexual intercourse between Solomon and the slave woman lying next to him who seduces him, but it includes Solomon`s lust for freedom. That lust is so strong that Solomon lets his guard down to finally steal paper, make ink and a pen and entrust the letter he writes to Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), an itinerant carpenter working on the plantation.

Unbeknownst to Solomon, Armsby was not motivated by good will towards Solomon but by greed himself, greed to win Epps` favour and gain the opportunity to become an overseer on his plantation. Armsby discloses Solomon`s plan to Epps. Epps threatens to cut Soloman`s throat. Solomon escapes by telling a blatant lie, insisting that Armsby`s tale was a tissue of lies. The treachery is reversed – not by truthfulness or honesty, but by an inverted betrayal that is so bold to be convincing. This is a turning point. Solomon turns on his betrayer and fabricates a story out of whole cloth to show how the one who betrayed him was really out to betray Epps – and Epps believes him. Solomon has given up all claims to justice and truth, to self pride and human decency as, in order to survive, he sacrifices any threads of clinging to his social humanity.

We also have the gluttony of the slave owners with their great displays of food – from which Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) offers crumbs to her slaves. The close-ups of the meager food offering on Solomon`s plate at the beginning of the film, repeated in purgatory, tell a good part of the story. Leonardo Di Caprio’s Calvin Candie, in Quentin Tarantino`s Django Unchained was also a very depraved villain but one with polish and wit, with cruel humour and an aristocratic sense of self. Epps as played so brilliantly by Michael Fassbender is no Candie for he disdains any veneer of civilization and rather makes a mockery of the social graces of high society. With Epps, we are beyond the malicious violence of Tibault and into the twisted malevolent pleasure that the totally unpredictable Epps takes in tormenting his slaves, sometimes indulging them while at other times he wallows in their humiliation, making them dance to southern aristocratic reels in their nighties as if to prove that Negroes in the south lacked any sense of rhythm. Epps is a manic depressive and obsessive madman who can switch in seconds from degrading his slaves to picking up, twirling around and dancing with a young daughter of a slave who is only clothed in a nightdress. Epps is not a real and present danger but an ominous, often silent and unpredictable menace as we in the audience suffer in agony in anticipation of his next atrocity. Surely, he cannot become worse! But we are as deluded as Solomon.

God`s wrath is meted out to Epps in the destruction of the cotton crop from cotton worm, but Epps only blames the plague on the shortcomings of his slaves when it is Epps` mistreatment that allows a slave to die while picking the crop. The dead slave`s real sin is one of insufficient passion for life; he simply gives up. But the worst sins of purgatory arise from passions that are now infused with malice, primarily Epps` wrath focused on the obsession of his life, the slave, the beautiful but hapless Patsey who is also the best of his pickers who can collect 500 pounds of cotton a day compared to Solomon`s 138 pounds. When Patsey returns after a short disappearance, Epps` wife completely loses her cool at her husbands obsession; in an earlier scene she three a wine decanter at Patsey. Epps himself, furious at his own need for Patsey, ties her down and even forces Solomon to whip her. As Patsey’s flesh is shredded into raw strips, so is Solomon’s soul. Patsey, like the woman walking the tightrope in McQueen’s short film, Five Easy Pieces, combines extreme vulnerability and impossible strength of character. Patsey is Dante`s Beatrice who allows Solomon to survive in purgatory.

Eventually, Epps has to complete the whipping task himself when Solomon fails to sustain sufficient wrath and self-loathing. Solomon has no more stomach for whipping than he had for picking cotton. The flogging is totally inhumane and we wince as the flesh is torn open and even more when the other slave women try to treat her open wounds. It is by far the most horrific scene in the movie, made much more horrible by the degradation to which Solomon has been reduced in participating in such an evil act just to survive.

Finally, paradise appears on the horizon in the form of Brad Pitt playing Bass, a very different kind of carpenter, a Jesus figure from Canada who is outspokenly anti-slavery. Solomon tells him his story. The film could have frivolously been called “Saved by a Canuck” as Brad Pitt plays the Canadian itinerant anti-slavery carpenter who finally carries Solomon’s message north to report on the whereabouts of Solomon and his illegal capture and confinement. Shortly after, John Waddill arrives with the sheriff and the required legal papers and whisks Solomon away over Epps` futile protests. Solomon is then very quickly redeemed and returns to paradise and his family. But what a paradise!

The trip through purgatory was horrific but richly sensuous, remorseless in the depths of the degradations reached. But paradise turns out to be cold. The family members gather round and, as expected, hug the returned captive. But the members of the family, including his new son-in-law and grandson, are all strangers. Like a returning veteran from the Iraq War, they cannot possibly recognize what Solomon has been through. What a contrast with James Foxx` reunion with his wife at the end of Quentin Tarantino`s Django Unchained.

John Ridley has certainly superbly selected from Solomon Northup’s unbridled and sweeping autobiography, managing to combine a highly structured organization of a descent into hell, a passage through purgatory and a re-entry into paradise while remaining absolutely true to the realism of Solomon`s tale. The film has a brilliant cast beginning with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. Lupita Nyongò plays Patsey with passionate desperation and Michael Fassbender is suitably vicious as Edwin Epps – all deserving of Oscars as respectively best actor and best supporting actress and actor.  But every single minor character is also perfectly cast and superbly preformed, in the cases of Paul Giamatti portrayal of Freeman and Paul Dano`s performance of Tibault.

Sean Bobbitt`s cinematography is superb, whether photographing ominous cloudy skies or the ripple of the water behind a paddle wheeler, but culminating in the single unbroken shot of Patsey`s beating as the camera circles both Solomon and Patsey, a technique that forces the viewer to share the suffering of both as one whip stroke follows another. Photographing the action from the positional perspective of the characters, particularly Solomon, allows us to share his experience with much greater intensity. It is a camera that refuses to look away.

The music of Hans Zimmer is often very simple but always infused with great emotion; it is sometimes humble, at other times, majestic, but always infused with nobility. The myriad of slave songs reinforce the realism: Alicia Key sings “Queen of the Field. Patsey endures her suffering rto “Driva Man”, ”a sparse, brooding, slow-swinging jazz number” ”about an enslaved person reaching `quittin’ time` while also trying to please the overseer to avoid getting beaten.” Gary Clark Jr. sings “Freight Train”.  

Do NOT miss this movie!

The evening before last, my son, Gabriel, and I went to see Survival, oops!, Gravity in 3D starring Susan Bulloch and George Clooney. If you like high-tech amazing amusement rides that keep you very tense, go see the movie. Enough said! Except, any comparison between Gravity and Twelve Years a Slave as competitors for the Oscar for best picture is ludicrous. 

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